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Bach Track, 23rd March 2016

3*
Ballet Black: technique, elegance and contagious energy at the Barbican
Reviewer: Tatiana Rathelot

Performing at the Barbican Theatre a triple bill of works created by renowned choreographers – Arthur Pita, Christopher Marney and Christopher Hampson – is quite an achievement for any company. Yet, Ballet Black goes even further: without abdicating the pointe shoes, it projects dance to a broader audience and shows how vibrating and authentic a company can be.


Crystals are the point of departure of Cristaux, the duet that opens the evening. A young man (Mthuthuzeli November) dreams of this elegant and powerful creature (Cira Robinson) who seems to levitate across the stage with fast bourrés and elegant, boneless, Russian-like arms. The audience hears nothing but the scores of Steve Reich’s minimalist Drumming Part III, or the sound of crystal chunks hitting against each other as they are moved by a gentle breeze.


Pita does not hide his fascination for Balanchine’s Palais de Cristal (1947). His glamorous view of classical ballet is present in the elegant promenades, high extensions and well-coordinated manèges performed by the couple. On the other hand, the characters are different from other ballets in the sense that the ballerina guides her partner; she is not a naïve girl to be deceived by a prince (as in Giselle), nor is she the instrument of evil forces (as is Swan Lake’s Odile), but someone who enlightens the man. The choreography does not lack mystical references, from the apparition of this sacred, shining spirit to the meditative tempo of the music and the pendulum that swings across the stage like the incensory in Santiago de Compostella's Cathedral in Spain. Cristaux is one of these technically demanding pieces that becomes increasingly fascinating as the dancers are absorbed by the choreography and the idea it transmits.


To Begin, Begin is a collection of solos, duets and ensembles that talk about the transitory character of (romantic) relationships. The dancers seem immersed in an ocean of emotions where encounters of different duration and intensity take place. The easiness with which Sayaka Ichikawa performs the choreography is remarkable, and the nuances of her character’s personality are followed closely by the audience. Rebecca Hayes’ airy costumes and balloon skirts successfully create the illusion that characters are following in slow motion or underwater. The blue silk piece used in the choreography, by contrast, leaves sometimes the impression that it must be used for the story to make sense – which might not necessarily the case otherwise. The duets could be a little more fluid, but all in all the ensemble (most notably the women) is very convincing in the most lyrical piece of the evening.


Originally presented by Ballet Black in 2012, The Story of Storyville is the pièce de résistance of the evening. The narrative has grown in characters and complexity, but remains engaging and enjoyable for the audience as well as for the dancers. As in silent movies, billboards – funnily carried by the dancers as in a boxing arena – introduce the characters and inform the audience about the passage of time. We follow the arrival of the young girl Nola (Robinson) in New Orleans, and how, driven by necessity, curiosity, jazz and bourbon she thoroughly experiences the city through its characters: the wily madam Lulu White (superbly played by Ichikawa), her business associate Mack (Joshua Harriette) and the young sailor she falls in love with (Damien Johnson). It is a treat to see Nola abandoning herself in her lover’s arms, as well as Lulu White and Mack’s twisted relationship. It is impossible not to think of the similarities between New Orleans (also known as Nola) and Ballet Black and the strength that comes from its multicultural, musical, determined and passionate soul.

Like crystals, Ballet Black is at the same time beautiful and simple, transparent and strong. By the end of the piece it is clear that something more than good technique and a contract keeps the company together, and this makes all the difference when we see their performances.